Tag Archives: confusion of law and gospel

The confusion of Law & Gospel

Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter…

Preparing for a “Basic Lutheran Teachings” class and the foundation to Lutheran understanding is called Law and Gospel. CFW Walther, LCMS founding light, would write that “if you wish to be an orthodox teacher, you must present all the articles of the faith in accordance with Scripture, yet you must also rightly distinguish Law and Gospel”. What he meant by that was that applying scripture to life is more art than science. What we are experts at doing is applying the law when the gospel is called for, or reaching for the gospel when the law is appropriate. Or, even more likely, we apply a squishy gooey mess of law-gospel or gospel-law. We confuse the law and the gospel. We fail to distinguish.

Because it is easier to pick the nit out of my brother’s eye, the easiest one for me to distinguish is when folks confuse the two by trying to use legal means to effect the gospel. The logical flow would be this. Jesus said to take care of the poor. Doing so requires time and money. So we should raise taxes and have the government hire people to take care of the poor. Taking care of the poor is definitely a gospel element. The confusion comes when we decide to use legal means, the government, to achieve a gospel end. The gospel, the kingdom of heaven, does not come through our efforts. We cannot hasten it. It grows like a seed or like the leaven. You can read the history of the United States from Prohibition to the ACA as attempts to realize the gospel through legal means. And what you get is a big gooey mess.

But let me turn to the log in my own eye. We in the church are enamored of the the law. We think we know exactly how people should live. We say we proclaim the gospel. But too often all we do is use the gospel to further our legalist agenda. We dangle the gospel and forgiveness out to get people to straighten-up and fly right. (We might even be right is some circumstances. The law is good and wise if we have God’s law and not our own desires disguised as God’s law.) We act as if the gospel is a hot house flower that without the legal protections of the green house we built around it, it wouldn’t survive, instead of being the weed like mustard seed or the seeds that are thrown everywhere and immediately they grow. The second we say Jesus and…we have used the gospel to advance the law. What the church is about is Jesus. It proclaims the cross and the resurrection. Your old life? Crucified every day. Drowned every day in the waters of baptism. Can’t stop sinning? I’ve got good news. Jesus died to accounting. God is no longer counting. That staggering pile of debt that keeps on growing? Written off. You are free. The King forgave it and knows it no more. He died to that pile. But what about being heartily sorry for our sins? What about people who will abuse it? What about cheap grace? What about all my favorite hobby-horses? We all know the law. It is written on our hearts. Just don’t confuse the gift of the gospel with that legal agenda.